For several months after the presidential election, there were regular headlines about a huge boost in fundraising and volunteering for left-leaning nonprofits. Individual donors and volunteers sought ways to vent their frustration and protect their favored interests.
That’s nothing new, of course. Whichever party controls Washington, the charitable sector has long served as a kind of escape valve where the “loyal opposition” can live out values and priorities that may seem politically endangered. “It’s the ultimate expression of a democracy – our willingness to stand up for the values we care about most,” says Greg Baldwin. Baldwin serves as president of VolunteerMatch, the web’s largest volunteer engagement network, where the mission is to “make it easy for good people and good causes to connect.”
In its 19-year history, VolunteerMatch made such connections more than 12.5 million times, generating more than $10 billion in volunteer services for nonprofits worldwide. At any given time there are roughly 100,000 volunteer opportunities listed on the site, which receives about 1.26 million visits in a typical month, or more than 40,000 a day.
The week of President Trump’s inauguration was anything but typical, as would-be volunteers swarmed to the site, peaking at 72,000 on a single day. Baldwin recognizes the extraordinary level of interest, but he’s careful to note that volunteering is primarily a civic action rather than a political one. To him, the flurry of interest just “underscores that volunteering is fundamental to a healthy democracy.”
“At VolunteerMatch, we believe that people come together to give back, not just to fight back. We’re proud to offer opportunities that are neither blue nor red: scout leader, tutor, food bank worker — whatever it may be. It’s about caring and community building, and this partisan political division isn’t the path forward for communities.”
So how can nonprofit organizations harness this energy to attract volunteers? Baldwin says it’s important to be specific about both your mission and the type of volunteer opportunity you can offer.
Technology has allowed volunteers to scope out opportunities that are much more relevant and specific to their individual skills, from technology to leadership to marketing. Just a few years ago, a volunteer listing might have been something as general as “Come out and help with the pancake breakfast,” but today about half the opportunities in the VolunteerMatch database are tagged with one or more specific skills.
It’s important to match skills, but Baldwin has found that mission usually trumps everything else. “There’s a greater hunger for giving back than most of us recognize, [but] volunteering is extremely personal,” he says. “When you’re getting involved with a cause, the number one reason is the sense that you can make a difference, help advance a mission that you care about. You’re looking for the satisfaction of doing something generous and meaningful. ‘Purpose’ is a great frame for understanding that dynamic.”
With so many people looking for ways to live with purpose, Baldwin believes the charitable community often fails to maximize the power and potential of volunteering. “If you believe that people are basically selfish and busy, then you underestimate their willingness to be helpful. At VolunteerMatch, we try to empower organizations to be bold in their requests. Look at Habitat for Humanity: They made a bold and unreasonable request for millions of volunteers to build houses for others. A reasonable person might have said, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ but we know how it turned out.”
For Baldwin, encouraging greater volunteerism is crucial to the health of civil society. “It’s no accident that we have three sectors in our society,” he says, “but it’s too easy today to collapse the third sector and only see the world in terms of government and business.”
“The freedom to pursue the values important to us is distinctive of democracy. We have to embrace the freedom to organize around things that we care about. I can’t think of anything more important than harnessing the tools of the modern world to reinvent civil society for the 21st century.”